29 December 2008

Narrative and Literacy

Stephen Dedalus is not really James Joyce. We know that, right? A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a work of fiction. So is Ulysses. Surely the facts of Joyce's life inform the characters in his books, but Joyce is not asking the reader to become involved because he is a celebrity or has lead a strange life, he is asking the reader to become involved in a great narrative - fictional tales which contain truths far greater than the miniscule details of one person's life.

Nick Carraway is not F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nor is Dick Diver. Pip is not Charles Dickens. Clarissa Dalloway is not Virginia Woolf.

We know these things because we know how to read. Really read. That is, we know how to take in a narrative as the author offers it, and we know how to seek the truths we might find therein. We know what storytelling is - an act of framing the world in a specific way. And we know what good storytelling is - an art of framing the world in new ways, in ways that create more questions than answers.

"We" know these things, but sadly, many do not.

Pity Oprah Winfrey, The New York Times, the book publishers of the United States, the agents, the ghost writers. Pity them all. They lack these skills. No wonder so many of those 'in power' are so threatened by something like Wikipedia. If your literary analytical skills are so poor that A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man would have to either be "all true" or "all fiction" you surely cannot separate the accurate from the questionable in a Wikipedia entry.

So, let us give a decent burial to the idea that those who consider themselves the best readers in America are actually, effectively, literate. And let's accept that burial as a sign that most of what we know about teaching literacy has been proven completely wrong.

Take these two quotes from today's New York Times article about the latest "memoir hoax": '"I believed the teller," Ms. Hurst [the agent for the book] said. "He was in so many magazines and books and on 'Oprah.' It did not seem like it would not be true."' And, "Susanna Margolis, a New York-based ghost writer who polished Mr. Rosenblat's manuscript, said she was surprised by his description of his first blind date with Ms. Radzicki. "I thought that was far-fetched." she said. "But if somebody comes to you, as an agent and a publisher, and says, 'This is my story,' how do you check it other than to say, 'Did this happen?'"

All those completely fooled by the narratives of Kaayva Viswanathan, Margaret Seltzer, Misha Defonseca, James Frey, and now, Herman Rosenblat, are not just greedy, and they are not just lazy and sloppy. Instead they are tied - by failed or out-of-date educations - to antiquated notions of cognitive authority, and thus antiquated notions of literacy. And because they are tied to these antiquated concepts, they can no longer function in the world.

Agent Andrea Hurst is completely dependent on "publisher" authority. This is the notion that certain sources need not be questioned because of their basic authority. So, if Oprah is the source, "it must be true." You know this theory. You see it in teachers and professors who accept a citation from, say, The New York Times or a book published by Cambridge University but not, say, Wikipedia, or a self-published book.

Susanna Margolis is dependent on the "personal recommendation" authority. Someone she respects sent this author to her, and "how do you check it"? she asks.

Both are, of course, victims of a society that no longer knows how how to interpret fiction, or narrative at all. There is significant evidence that ancient Greeks knew that both their Olympic God myths and their Homeric Legends were both important and fictional (why did Bronze Age warriors fight with Iron Age weapons?). And there is significant evidence, from Creationists to Oprah, that many 21st Century Americans can longer make these intellectual leaps. Those fooled by Herman Rosenblat's concocted Holocaust romance are drawn to 'memoirs' for the same reason many American readers are, they do not read well enough to process the many complexities of narrative without being told in advance that something is (simplistically) "true" or "false."

But these publishing industry leaders also lack basic literacy and knowledge skills. They are victims of the "straight line" reading the National Endowment for the Arts so prizes. I might read Ulysses with a map of old Dublin open here, and a Joyce biography open there, but this kind of 'multi-tasking' is considered 'distracting' and 'dangerous' to many of those who control and teach reading. So no one involved in publishing Angel at the Fence or Love and Consequences or Misha could 'distract' themselves for the four minutes necessary to doubt and look up even the most basic facts.

Might you doubt that - in reality - outsiders could throw gifts to Death Camp inmates over a fence? Or the idea of a girl being raised by wolves? Could you stop and check a high school graduation record? Could you simply put a passage or two into Google to check for plagiarism.

These are among today's basic skills. We need both the ability to understand that "narrative is narrative" - and every bit of every form can be doubted without devaluing it - and the ability to check out what we are learning in order to provide context.

When I read a highly proclaimed "reading study," for example, I investigate who the authors are, looking for the lens they see the world through. But even if the study is highly biased, I still look for observations which I find of value. When I read a novel I still check out what might be 'real' - Gatsby's Valley of the Ashes is a wonderful description of Flushing Meadow in Queens, NY before Robert Moses got his hands on it, and I take in the author's deep cynicism about the "American Dream" without expecting him to be some kind of distinguished social historian.

This is reading fully contextualized into our world. It is not the old blind allegiance to genre or publisher or position in the Dewey Decimal System that formed the knowledge structure of the past two hundred years.

Instead it is a new structure which understands that everyone who tells a story is telling that story from a point of view and for a reason, and a structure which gives us the power, through contemporary technologies, to add those vital contextual clues to our reading.

Narrative is that essential human "thing." And the collection of narratives we absorb builds our sense of the world. Yes, for example, I've read biographies of Huey Long, and I've read Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men, and I've read enough articles about Robert Penn Warren to know that his novel is "half Long and half Mussolini," and I've looked at other histories of Louisiana and FDR - and all construct my knowledge of that moment in American history, and nothing distracts me from the brilliant poetry of Penn Warren's opening chapter as I heard it read on Audiobook, the stanzas built to the rhythm of the tar joints of an old southern highway being traversed at a hundred miles an hour.

How is reading being taught in your school? Is it a disconnected set of skills? Is it divided into "truth" and "untruth" (non-fiction and fiction)? Or is it taught within the contexts of how we can build our knowledge? Is it taught as a "task" (decoding, phonics)? Or is it taught as an intellectual process of joining new information to old questions?

I think reading is a precious thing. I think it is an essential thing. I just wish our schools would recognize why it is precious, why it is essential, and would help our students learn to really read, rather than fumble phonetically in a "fluent" straight line to a simplistic answer, checkable through multiple choice.

- Ira Socol
still struggling with pain-med induced incoherence, but trying to keep my brain going anyway.

24 December 2008

Happy Christmas to All

It is difficult to get things written these days. The fog of pain meds, a lack of stamina, writing from bed, which has never been my comfort zone. But I did want to say a "Happy Christmas to All" to all of you in this corner of the Blogosphere. I think, every day, how lucky I am to live in these times, when simple tools like blogs and Twitter, email and list-serves, Skype and Google Chat, can bring so many of us together, in such vital ways.

I think about all I learn from blogs and Twitter everyday. All the tools I discover, strategies I find, resources I can add to my toolbelt, and I feel like we have arrived at someplace profoundly new in human education.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

And then I think how many are left out of this new world. Just as Dickens' described the horribly uneven acquisition of weath in Industrial Revolution England when he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, so today we might describe a situation where those most in need of the empowerment that these new learning modes bring, are most likely to be denied access.

Harry Harrison's Classic Monologue

I meet students every day who languish in the back of 19th Century classrooms, while something as simple as the right mobile phone could allow them to join any number of remarkable, interactive, learning communities. I meet students every day who sit frustrated because their teachers and schools refuse to provide them with reasonable access to information. I meet students every day who attend schools which refuse to teach the essential skills of contemporary communications these kids will need to survive. And on many days, I get angry.

But today I am not angry. Today I am hopeful. Today I look out and see all of you working incredibly hard to change these facts. And I see all of you experimenting, collaborating, sharing, trying. And I see us at a moment where the technology and the intention of Universal Design have come together.

So, Happy Christmas to All. Thanks to all of you for all that you do.

- Ira Socol

19 December 2008

A Week in Hospital: Constructing Disability

Last Friday night I walked out of my "not-quite-in-laws" home and walked around my car to put something I was carrying in to the trunk. It had started to snow while we had been visiting inside, and the temperature had begun to fall rapidly. As I reached for the trunk lid, my feet went out from under me, there was a panicked moment as I tried to juggle what I was carrying, and then I hit the pavement and an explosion of pain went through my body. I reached out to touch my right knee, but found no kneecap there. And then I just struggled to stay conscious, to stay out of shock.

It is now about seven days later, and I'm finally back home. Surgery has scraped together as much of my shattered patella as was possible, cleaned out other bits that were pressing badly on certain nerve endings. I've been locked into a knee immobilizer, fed a steady and massive stream of painkillers, been taught (once again) to move with crutches and (for the first time) a walker, and I've discovered how difficult many of life's most basic tasks can be.

I've discovered something else as well. I might have been deeply foggy for the past week, but I kept observing. And one of the things I observed was how professionals construct disability while working with their patients-clients-students.

1. Not bothering to know who you are.
When the police arrived at the driveway, their mission was to hurry the ambulance and keep me talking. I know this drill. I have worked in emergency services - even emergency medical services. My 'friend' mentioned that I had done that job, and so I might be able to answer questions more clearly than most. The paramedics took that information and ran with it, asking me about morphine dosing, using more "professional" vocabulary. That kept me engaged, attentive, and less focused on the rather remarkable pain level. They treated me as "me," and not as a "patient."

Later, at the hospital, most of the nurses and aides never considered these facts, or asked any questions which might have uncovered them. I became such a "non-specific patient," just a "diagnosis" and thus uninvolved in my own care. This became so extreme on a few nursing shifts that I actually wanted to resist their efforts to treat me.

With the ambulance crew I was a person with a somewhat unique knowledge base who needed help. With the hospital staff I was simply disabled.

You know the parallel: Every time we reduce our students to a label, discard the essentials of who they are, ignore their 'backstories,' we dehumanize them, take them out of the process, almost force rebellion. We also create dependency because we eliminate the contributions of the student. And we typically don't know what to do to help at that point, because we have stopped listening to the best information source.

2. Not really listening.
"On a scale of one to ten, with one being no pain and ten being the worst pain you've ever felt, what's your pain level right now?" I was asked this fifty times. Maybe more.

What's wrong with this question? You would have to make sure you know the patient's prior pain experience. You would have had to really listened before. Because, obviously, if one patient has previously, say, been shot, and another has never experienced anything more catastrophic than a sprained ankle, the two scales will be wildly different in size.

Just as in special needs education we've reduced something very personal into a codable scale that leaves us knowing nothing. Just as I didn't want to be measured against "Third Year Standards" when I was struggling to read when I was eight, I didn't want my pain scale measured against some nurse's arbitrary understanding. (I've had some massive injuries, but this was, without a doubt, the most painful, with the highest "baseline" - always there - pain level.) And because the hospital staff was not really listening, they never could quite get my pain under control.

And I lay there - in pain - and thought how often I hear educators referring to "mild" and "severe" disabilities. And no matter how often I challenge them on this, no matter how often I say, "how do you know what is severe to this student?" They keep using these terms as a way of disabling their students, of turning them into chartable diagnoses.

3. Assuming that "you" can't hear.
Two nurses stand by the edge of the bed and talk about you, assuming that you are not hearing. They stand just outside your door, talking. They give each other 'looks' as they are working on you. They talk to your family without including you in the conversation. They throw open the door, turn on the lights, write something on a chart, and leave without acknowledging you - leaving the lights on and the door open.

Nothing creates disability faster than pretending that the person in question cannot function in the most basic ways.

In the class I taught this past semester we read a bunch of "first person voices" of "disabled"students. Many of the soon to be teachers expressed surprise that the students seemed "so aware." I told them that we are all very aware. We know what every head shake means, what the big words imply. We know that when the person examining you writes a bunch of notes, you've done, or said, something wrong. We even know what you say about us in the Teachers' Lounge, because we see the results. What we learn from your attempts of ignore us is that we are worthless, that we truly are "disabled."

What a difference you might make if you treated us as fully human. If that nurse had said, "Excuse me, I just had to put something on your chart. Do you still want the lights off and the door closed?" She might have handed me a bit of power, and dignity, and allowed me to think of myself as 'as human as' she was. Again, a person in need of help, rather than a person with a disability.

4. Infantilizing.
This is simple. Making it easy for someone to ask for help enables. Assuming a person can not do, or can not make choices, disables. "Would you like to get cleaned up? I can bring you things or I can help if you want me to," enables. "Now we'll get you cleaned up so you'll feel better," disables. It reduces anyone to the status of helpless infant.

Just as, "That's a great book, you know we also have that as an audiobook or as text set up to run in WYNN," enables, while, "That is a great book, but I think it will be too difficult for you," disables. Which is why most classroom reading groups (those based on reading "ability") disable.

5. Making it look easy.
My physical therapist was great. He really was. If I look at the previous issues he was on the right side every time. But there was one moment.

He was helping me practice stairs. To do this I had already walked further than I previously had, to get to a stairwell. And I struggled up four steps - feeling dizzy, unbalanced, exhausted. It is very difficult to go upstairs when one leg can not be bent at all. You have to swing this incredibly heavy, non-responsive thing, out to the side, hold your balance, keep it out of the way of the crutch on that side... you know.

I came back down. He said, "Let me show you again." And with that he slowly climbed the stairs, with his unencumbered right leg bent at a 30 degree angle.

I could have done that too.

We do this so often in education. We act as if the task is easy or simple, all that's missing is the effort. And then, yes, people who can't do even the simple and easy things, are disabled. We forget that many of these tasks are extremely difficult and complex. We forget that our demonstrations are laughably distant from the way a "beginner" would approach this. And we forget that "we" - educators - might be built radically differently from the students we are trying to help.

Don't suggest "ease" or "simplicity" - admit that things are difficult. That won't discourage, as long as we celebrate every victory over every component process.

So, coming home was dramatically liberating. Here, I may not have all of the supports, but I'm much less disabled. Here, no one is working hard to disable me.

- Ira Socol
who hopes this is readable, I'm still fairly 'foggy'...

11 December 2008

Insufficiently Transformative

In the last week's great "clicker" debate I called these "classroom response systems" "insufficiently transformative."

And yesterday a friend reminded me of an article I'd seen recently in The Atlantic - FutureSchlock - the sad tale of the dimishment of Disneyland's House of the Future. We have gone, P.J. O'Rourke writes, from breakthroughs in how we live to apparently just wanting very large digital photo frames.

And the day before I listened to one of my colleagues bemoan how computers are typically used in schools - when they are used at all - as typewriters or as the home of math games both less educational and less fun than a good round of Racko.

I said to my friend, "We used to have bigger dreams." We did. The world of the 1950s and 1960s was a mess, there's no doubt about it. Brutal to people and the planet. But within that disaster people imagined real change. Not just flying cars, but world peace. Not just PicturePhone but agricultural revolutions. Not just supersonic planes and flights to the moon, but living, studying, and farming beneath the sea.

Big dreams matter. Without them we do not have a future to pursue. Only a past. And since that past is not only non-reclaimable, it was never as nice as we remember anyway, that's a sad strategy.

Education has seen the same failure of imagination. Where we once saw the wildest hopes - Schools Without Walls, Hampshire College, Summerhill, even a basic small state campus like Grand Valley State in Michigan could be built around learning style choice and the newest "on-demand" technologies (classes could be watched in individual video cubicles, among other things): "The period between 1967 and 1972, especially, was a time of crisis for public education, when student demonstrations, teacher strikes, and a deep questioning of traditional assumptions shook the system to its core. In these few years alone, over 500 "free schools"--nonpublic schools based on countercultural if not revolutionary ideas--were founded. Open classrooms and magnet schools (public schools of choice) were introduced. And the spirit of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel began to seep into academic and professional circles, leading, by the end of the 1970's, to approaches that came to be called "humanistic" and "holistic" education." (Ron Miller)

We imagined education which looked as different from what we knew as the 'life undersea' visions of the 1964 General Motors Futurama was from life in our suburban tract homes. We understood that doing the same things - again - would not get us where we wanted to go: to peace, to an end of poverty, to an end of hunger, to a world of justice and opportunity.

In technology, many of our dreams have come true. They were big dreams, and we pursued them. We now carry mobile phones that essentially work the way the communication devices did in Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Our cars can talk to us and envelop us in air bags in a crash. We have video phones - and for free. "Everyone" has the world's greatest library available in their home, or in their pocket. Agriculture has transformed the world's food supply.

But in schools, we go backwards. We even declare it, saying, we're going "back"wards "to basics." When we let a few new things trickle in, we control them so fiercely that they change almost nothing. Rather than tearing down classroom walls our kids now spend more time in school and even take fewer field trips. Rather than alternative evaluations we now have standardized tests for all ages. Rather than project-based learning we now have Core Curriculum. Rather than social justice we have "zero tolerance."

And rather than the freedom of mobiles in the classroom we have the coercive control of clickers. Rather than the freedom of the internet we have filters and blocks. Rather than the interaction of messaging and blogs and Twitter and Skype we have rules against these technologies. Rather than pushing past Wikipedia and print-based knowledge design, we don't even allow Wikipedia in so that we can discover its limits. Rather than computers allowing for individualization, we "lock them down."

We've stopped dreaming - unless we are dreaming of the Eisenhower Administration and pretending it was all things I am quite certain it was not. And since we've stopped dreaming, we've stopped progressing. We're so afraid these days. I never understood how Europeans just 'gave up on progress' when the Roman Empire fell, but now I do. We have done the same. Retreated to our dark, isolated classrooms, hiding from the world, hoping it all goes away.

It is time to stop hiding and start dreaming. It is time to reject what we are doing now: hell, that's easy, we know it does not work. And it is time to reject all the "tinkering around the edges" which wastes our energy and accomplishes nothing. We have to say no to everything that is not sufficiently transformative, which does not change what education is, and put all of our energies into ideas which will transform.

I thought of building a little Futurama here: Great examples of great education, from The College of the Atlantic to Lisa Parisi's Classroom. Those are fabulous to see, but that's not what we need, we need to go further, we need to go to the ends of our imagination.

At our final class session this semester I left my class with a block of reading about the future. Only a few of them will read this - I didn't require it - but maybe we all should:
The 2008 Horizon Report
Designing Educational Technologies for Social Justice
Mobile Learning - Towards a Research Agenda
Emerging Technologies for Learning - 3
Emerging Technologies for Learning - 2
Emerging Technologies for Learning - 1
ESCalate News: Harnessing Technology for Education
E-inclusion: Learning Difficulties and Digital Technologies
Michael Wesch (K-State) on Technology and Learning

That's just a start, just to get us imagining. And that is where to start, because I have learned that if we can dream it, we can make it. When I told Charles Chen that I needed an easy version of FireVox with no more than three buttons, he had CLiCk-Speak built ten months later. When a bunch of us said we needed a context-based, interactive SpellChecker, Ofer Chermesh and his Ghotit team created one. When I told my son we needed a simple Twitter-like system for the classroom, he gave me Today'sMeet six weeks later.

Those are tiny dreams, but they are proof of what we can do.

This isn't all about technology - but then again it is. It is about using the technologies that we have and that we will have to break the boundaries, to smash the walls, to build the connections, to liberate. It is about tossing out the 1840s-designed schoolhouse and classroom, and dreaming an educational structure which works for everyone.

So this holiday season make this your resolution: Dream. Dream Big. And reject the "insufficiently transformative." We need to put our energy behind the things which will make a difference.

- Ira Socol

I get bloggerviewed

at OpenEducation.net

Still time to get
The Drool Room
for Christmas:

06 December 2008

Who's Behind the Curtain?

I ended up in two big educational debates this past week. One was about "clickers" - those "Classroom Response Systems" that are increasingly infiltrating our classrooms. The other, about Washington, D.C. Schools' Chancellor Michelle Rhee and "the reform agenda for schools" coming from America's financial elites.

In these debates I was abrupt, and cruel (sorry, David Brooks, I know you are only doing your job keeping Wall Street Republicans reading The New York Times, I shouldn't have gotten personal - and a very big apology to Roger Cohen, another NYT columnist, who I blamed in bizarre mix up), and perhaps, in a few moments, coherent and convincing. I read wonderful stuff from passionate people too.

But stepping back, I want to bring both these debates together, because, in the end, they are both about power, about who gets to control education in the United States (and thus who the "winners" in education will be), about who is pulling those levers from behind the curtain.

Michelle Rhee is riding the broomstick, but it is a different Wizard of Oz image I'm interested in...

We have two tidal events occurring here, but these are not natural tides, they are invented ones. And when people seek to create tides, I think we should always ask why.

So, in a higher educational establishment which, for example, has refused to even load their computers with free universal design software technologies, much less invest in those systems which might transform education for a vast array of students now failed by the system, we see broad adoption and massive spending on "clickers."

And, in a climate of broad K-12 system failure, with hundreds of fascinating alternative success examples from around the world, the US media establishment (Disney, Time-Warner, GE, Viacom, NYT Company) has declared one "leader" - a leader with no measurable accomplishments and a confrontational style which seems to drive almost everyone away - as education's messiah.

hero worship

But let's start with the "clickers." Michael Bugeja, a friend and technology in education sparring partner (and the Director of the Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State University) wrote a piece this past week in the Chronicle of Higher Education - a paid publication I rarely read and a paid website I rarely visit. His commentary, Classroom Clickers and the Cost of Technology, tracked the adoption pattern of these one-way communication systems on university campuses.

"Marketers seem to know our business better than we know theirs. That was apparent a few years ago, when publishers introduced infrared clickers bundled with specific textbooks or series of textbooks. In a class of 400 students, each of whom would spend $40 for a clicker, many institutions paid for the purchase and/or installation of receivers, in effect helping to sell the company's products. Companies suggested clickers for multiple-choice questions based on a book's content, an easy adaptation from previous instruction booklets with answer keys — not exactly innovative, but cost-effective, making books appear interactive overnight."

Bugeja - who I often debate regarding technology adoption in the classroom - but whom I deeply respect on the subject, even when we disagree - is concerned with the cost/benefit calculations behind the "clicker decision" as well as the key question of who is pulling the strings.

I have been "clear" about my position on clickers - calling them "Instant Anachronisms" and "Coercive Technology." Even when I see some possible benefit - bad lectures may be marginally better with clickers than without - I regard this technology as "insufficiently transformational" - that is, not worth the costs in a nation where students already can not afford higher education.

But the key issue here is "why"? Who has pushed this technology, and to what end. I joined in a fascinating debate on this at the blog of Derek Bruff, a math professor and director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, and major "clicker advocate). If you follow that debate, you'll see where it leads. Why is Turning Technologies selling clicker receivers cheaply? Is it because it hopes to tie Vanderbilt's faculty to the textbooks of its partners? Those partners? Thomson Learning, Glencoe McGraw-Hill, Dell Computers, Steljes Group. Oh. The primary distributors of the $150 textbook are "giving away" (sort of) systems which will seemingly guarantee the continued sale of $150 textbooks.

Those marketing Universal Design Technologies - Freedom Scientific, Text-Help, Kurzweil, etc, can't afford to "persuade" universities this way, but Thomson Learning (or is it Cengage now?) sure can. And thus we find "clickers" everywhere, and struggle to discover transformational technologies on our campuses.

Dr. Bugeja would want me to suggest that we always follow these trails. And when I sat in a meeting with Google's Jeff Keltner regarding Google Apps for Education this semester, I heard all the questions. Why would Google give away a campus email and collaboration system (stripped of the advertising which is Google's only real revenue stream) for free? What's the catch? Keltner (as Google execs tend to be) was blunt. People who use their tools tend to use their search engine and, quote, "we're pretty good at monetizing that." And, "we see students as future leaders, if they become comfortable with our tools now, they'll tend to use them later in their lives."

Yes this is insidious seduction, it sure is, but let's consider this cost/benefit balance. What does your university (or school) spend on email? If that email system was free, could you not raise tuition? Could you hire more faculty? Could you put WYNN on more campus computers? But here's the thing, Google will seduce, but they won't bribe. They won't hand a toy to a faculty member at a conference which transforms that prof into "a techie" in the eyes of his or her peers. They won't give out free books either. So their "leverage" in campus decision making is limited. As we may deduce from observing the number of campuses spending their own and student dollars on "clickers" vs. the number cutting costs by adopting Google Apps for Education.

The Universal Design Tech companies? Without the profits from 700% textbook markups, or the alternative revenue stream of Google, they struggle to bribe or seduce. Even when their products are free, they remain of little interest to universities - despite, well, what's the cost/benefit relationship there?

Which brings us back to Michelle Rhee. Who's marketing her, and why?

Rhee is part of a broad push by America's true "old guard" to ensure that education doesn't really change. The same folks at Harvard and Penn who offer our minorities the lowest educational expectations possible through Teach for America and KIPP Academies, are selling you Rhee, and lowered expectations for all schools - except of course, for the schools attended by the children of those elites.

There is a reason the television networks and New York Times and Time-Warner love TFA and Rhee. These organizations are run by people with power, and by people who would rather not share power.

So they have adopted the ultimate in reductionist standards. "If we had even decent education - or even enough teachers of any kind - in most of the places it places its students, then [TFA] would be a step down," a commenter on this blog said yesterday. Right, so here's the standard: Teach for America, or Michelle Rhee's DC school system, is better than not having schools at all.

Rhee's own words: '"People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."'

No, she doesn't give a crap. She wants her African-American students prepared for the lowest possible jobs on the economic ladder. That way (perhaps, in her unconscious thinking) they will not threaten the success of her small minority group - a group which has found itself accepted by the powers-that-be because it isn't big enough to be threatening.

Of course I have a different view of reading than Rhee, and of language itself. First, I know that there are lots of ways "to read," and second, I know that when children are inspired to learn about things, they tend to want to learn to read (in one form or another). As opposed to the Joel Klein-Michelle Rhee-KIPP Academy-George W. Bush notion that reading is a skill which should be learned outside of the context of interest-based education.

But then, my goal is opportunity, and my belief system - not being market-capitalist in nature - doesn't think an underclass is a good idea (to hold down upward pressure on wages).

Rhee is not important, of course. She's racist in her expectations and racist in her strategies, she's not an educator at all in the real meaning of that term, she talks a great deal but has little actual impact in her job. But Rhee being hailed as the educational messiah is important.

Like those who favor TFA solutions - the Rhee idea is to NOT change US society. Yes, we'll make impoverished minority groups marginally more competent - thus improving profits at the top and reducing the cost of the dole. But no, we will not empower those groups by empowering their children. Teaching them to be creative 'will have to wait' (forever). Teaching them to find their own learning styles - thus accepting cultural change instead of social reproduction - is dangerous (as it always is for those at the top).

We lower expectations. We test meaningless things (Time: "The ability to improve test scores is clearly not the only sign of a good teacher. But it is a relatively objective measure in an industry with precious few. And in schools where kids are struggling to read and subtract, it is a prerequisite for getting anything else done." Really? Anything? You can't teach the physics of a bouncing ball to a non-reader, or the love of literature?). We strip time away from what is precious to children and force them into chanting. We enforce white majority cultural norms and deny identity. We argue that teachers should be paid according to the "short term gain" rules that worked so well for traders at Citigroup and AIG.

And this is all brought to you by the wealthiest people, and the largest old-line corporations in the country. Because, I'll say it again, they have no incentive to allow those below them to succeed.

Follow the money my friends. When information flows freely to as many people as possible, Google makes money. When information is expensive, those who sponsor "clickers" make money. When the kids in Washington, D.C. schools fail, there are fewer challenges to the children of New York Times and Time editors for slots in Ivy League schools. When Washington, D.C. schools focus on "the basics" students from there will not beat out the son of a GE exec for a spot at Carnegie-Mellon.

When you see invented trends, pull back the curtain, see who's pulling the levers. It is important.

- Ira Socol

05 December 2008

Why Michelle Rhee is dangerous to children

I don't know why I read David Brooks' New York Times column. He is that kind of faux intellectual who mistakes travel for observation, and reading for learning, and no matter what he discusses, his conclusions drive me wild.

Today I read his love letter to "educators" Joel Klein (of New York City's school system) and Michelle Rhee (of Washington, DC). You can tell by Brooks' tone that he really wants President-Elect Obama to pick Michelle Rhee (or "Ms. Merit Pay" as we might call her) as Secretary of Education, though he is nervous about coming out and saying it, lest his dreams not come true.

Read this paragraph: "On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms."

Wow. Here's what Brooks is in favor of, the very same system that has worked so well for Wall Street this year, that "market-based solution," that has caused us to spend about $550 billion dollars to save Brooks' Manhattan and Connecticut friends and leave us with no money to save ten million manufacturing jobs.

"Merit Pay" - which brings to education the same "bonus for short term gain" strategy that enabled AIG, Bear Sterns, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, et al, to somehow misplace $7 trillion. we are already awash in the nonsense of "Scientific Research in Education" which provides studies that prove that if you do this this month the results on a perfectly matched test will improve next month (so what if the kid drops out five years later and hates reading for his lifetime?).

"Tough Accountability" - which means we offer educators incentives to teach to the test, to fake student results, to lie about what is going on in their schools, to limit what the forms of inquiry and education which are happening on in their schools. This is the same incentive system which encouraged Wall Street bond raters to claim everything was "AAA" and local real estate appraisers to claim that every house was worth double its value the previous year.

Michelle Rhee is also a graduate of the worst bit of in-nation colonialism currently being practiced, the Teach for America program. The basic assumption behind TFA is that teaching is so easy, any rich kid can do it with six weeks of preparation, but the basic philosophy is that if only poor kids had rich white kids to model themselves after, they'd be fine. No need to change education, no sir, changing education would (to use Brooks's words) be "superficial. Let's insist that the kids change instead - change into, well, yes, people just like David Brooks - white, male, wealthy, and comfortable at a cocktail party on Fifth Avenue.

And Rhee believes in compliance. It has not mattered whether schools "work" or not in DC, what matters is that her administrators follow her rules.

Yup, that's the "reform we need." That's all much less superficial than, say, funding education as if it was a national priority, or paying beginning and experienced teachers in a way which suggests the value of all the education they need to be good at their jobs (thus upping status and helping recruiting and retention - would we have gotten more out of our money if teachers had been paid like bankers and brokers this decade, and vise-versa?), or bringing global technology into our schools, or decreasing class size to allow for greater individualization, or providing better support for parents so they could spend more time with their children, or even rethinking when we teach what we teach (consider Scandinavia and literacy).

Yes, Mr. Brooks, superficial indeed.

Now I don't really know Michelle Rhee. But I do know that the depths of the challenges faced by the District of Columbia cannot be solved by schools alone, nor by the application of "market-based solutions" to a fundamental function of our society. And I know what Michelle Rhee has come to represent - another generation lost while conservatives try to prove that government doesn't - and shouldn't - work.

And I think our children, and our future, are too important for this kind of nonsense.

- Ira Socol

for reasons I can't quite explain, Roger Cohen's name was in this blog post rather than David Brooks's.
While this post isn't really fair to David Brooks either, blaming another - unrelated, New York Times columnist, was surely bizarre and very wrong. I apologize to all.

03 December 2008

Christmas Shopping Part 3 - Big Gifts

Perhaps you are doing "better than most" this holiday season... there's a bit of money in the bank - and if you invest it now you'll just lose it, so you think you might splurge...

If not we've had cheap and cheapest lists, but if yes...

(1) The Pulse SmartPen ($149/₤130 for 1gb, $199/₤155 for 2gb, plus $20/₤15 for a pack of special paper). The Smartpen does many things, "the Pulse captures what you write and what you hear simultaneously and synchronizes the writing and audio, so when you tap a particular word, you can hear what was being said when you wrote it. " It has it's limitations, but as an organizational tool for those who struggle with that, but prefer the pen to any keyboard, this is a great tool.

(2) WYNN from Freedom Scientific or Read-and-Write from Text-Help. Pricey solutions, but a friend of mine recently purchased WYNN for their son and they are reporting dramatic changes in school. Whether to purchase WYNN ($375 or $995/₤253 or ₤671 depending on whether you include the scanning function or not - and the scanning function is essential if your school is not supporting this) or Read-and-Write ($475 or $520/₤320 or ₤350 depending on whether Windows or Mac versions or the more expensive but fully portable mobile USB key version) is a choice best left to individual circumstances. I love both. WYNN is a simpler to use full literacy suite which is highly supportive of literacy needs at every age level. It is a sophisticated text-to-speech system with full interactiveness, writing supports (including predictive spelling) and easy conversions to Word, mp3, etc. Read-and-Write works as a desktop add in, building similar (and more) supports into other software you are using. But both are life changers for people who struggle with reading, and so maybe they are not very expensive after all.

(3) A Tablet PC. Maybe HP's TouchSmart with the multi-touch I wish my older one had. Tablets really allow a wide range of input possibilities, from keyboards to speech recognition, tapping on the screen or writing, sound or video recording, and, with options like an inexpensive USB keyboard, they'd allow multiple students to use differing input systems while working together. It's their own Interactive White Board linked to their own computer. Costly, yes ($1200 to $1600/₤1000 or ₤1300), but if you can afford it, liberating.

(4) A Blackberry. Or, all right, an iPhone - though I still can't understand a phone without voice dialing. Or, yes, another web-enabled "smart" phone. These are not just cool, they organize your life and help you skate past issues. They keep you connected and on task. They allow you to convert speech to text and text to speech. They allow you write with effective predictive spelling (QWERTY keyboards, or QWERTY-light, no more than 2 letters to a key, are important, it speeds up prediction dramatically). I won't even try to deal in prices here, you can, in the US, get the phones cheaply with expensive plans, in Europe you'll pay more for the phones, maybe less for the plans. Whatever. These devices are models of media flexibility and the possibilities of personalized information access.

(5) The Flip. Barely over the $100 mark these days (under $130/₤80 in this holiday shopping season) the Flip offers a fabulously easy way to record the world, and recording the world is a great way to discover it, and to learn about framing and knowledge assembly. Combine it with a portable hard drive like the MyBook (typically $170/₤130 for 1tb) to store all this video learning.

One more idea - how about a used computer and a year's worth of broadband access for a neighborhood (or community) family which has neither. Just a thought.

So, those are my Christmas Gift ideas. You can spend not a thing, or you can pick up that Tablet PC and load WYNN on it. But either way (or in between), you can give access this holiday, making it an Accessible Christmas, a Universal Hannukah, a Barrier Free Kwanza, an Equality Solstice, or whatever it is you and yours celebrate.

This doesn't seem like a holiday season to waste money on junk, but it does seem like a time to invest in opportunity.

Don't let this season pressure you - it is supposed to be a time of joy and light and sharing when we see too little of the sun and otherwise might hide inside. When it becomes something else, it means we're losing our balance. Think of small gifts which meet important needs, of shared meals where everyone helps, of time with your children, your parents, your neighbors, of works of charity big or small. I have, of course, childhood gift memories, but more powerful - after all these years - is the memory of sitting on the floor before the tree on Christmas Eve with my siblings fixing and extending the paper chain which always wrapped around it. A simple act everyone could participate in, no matter age or ability. You can not do better than giving that kind of memory to your kids.

- Ira Socol

Lon Thornburg is presenting another range of Assistive Technology Christmas gifts, and you should take a look. So far, Silicone Keyboard. Talking Photo Frame. MP3 Player Jump Drive. Lon will also be collecting other ideas at his AT Blog Carnival for a December 15th post.

My previous lists are Free or Very Inexpensive, and Under $100.

02 December 2008

Disability Awareness Week

I have learned to hate Disability Awareness Week. I learned to hate it by standing and watching activities in American high schools and on US university campuses - watch notions of disability be reified. Watching the issues of "disability" turned into parlor games.

Wheelchair races. Writing while looking in mirrors. Trying to walk around wearing Vaseline smeared eyeglasses.

National Feel Sorry for the Crips and Retards Week.

No thanks.

Anyway, it may or may not be Disability Awareness Week where you are. It's a moving target, in February, March, April, October, November, December. What set me off today was an email from Teachers TV (which I love) referring to their Disability Awareness Week scheduled to coincide with "the United Nations International Day of the Disabled Person on Wednesday" 3 December 2008.

Now, I can't argue with the UN's recommendations for the day:
  • Involve: Observance of the Day provides opportunities for participation by all interested communities - governmental, non-governmental and the private sector - to focus upon catalytic and innovative measures to further implement international norms and standards related to persons with disabilities. Schools, universities and similar institutions can make particular contributions with regard to promoting greater interest and awareness among interested parties of the social, cultural, economic, civil and political rights of persons with disabilities.
  • Organize: Hold forums, public discussions and information campaigns in support of the Day focusing on disability issues and trends and ways and means by which persons with disabilities and their families are pursuing independent life styles, sustainable livelihoods and financial security.
  • Celebrate: Plan and organize performances everywhere to showcase - and celebrate - the contributions by persons with disabilities to the societies in which they live and convene exchanges and dialogues focusing on the rich and varied skills, interests and aspirations of persons with disabilities.
  • Take Action: A major focus of the Day is practical action to further implement international norms and standards concerning persons with disabilities and to further their participation in social life and development on the basis of equality. The media have especially important contributions to make in support of the observance of the Day - and throughout the year - regarding appropriate presentation of progress and obstacles implementing disability-sensitive policies, programmes and projects and to promote public awareness of the contributions by persons with disabilities.
These are all great things to do. But if you are working on some kind of event of this sort, I'd like to list my "please don'ts."

Please don't make it all about sympathy. The "cry for the cripple" movie isn't necessary. Neither are any of the savant films - from Rain Man to A Beautiful Mind (these are great films, just not appropriate). People with "disabilities" are "othered" enough, without setting them ['us"] up as either always pathetic or always brilliant and courageous.

Please don't play those games - the blindfolds, the wheelchairs, the mirrors, the foggy glasses, the wraps that limit hand use. Here's the thing - if you accept your notions of "disability" one of the things you accept is a state of permanence. Wheeling around in a wheelchair might be fun, trying to write while seeing backwards might be fun, but neither is "disabling" and neither suggests anything about the experience of "disability." Using the bathroom without using your legs - in a non- accessible rest room, and knowing this will happen to you again and again and again - that's disabling. Being humiliated by school assignments and even peers because of your reading, and having no solution for it - that's disabling. Getting fired because your boss won't bother to text message you even though it's the best way for you - as a deaf person - to get his messages - that's disabling. Now, recreate those experiences, and I'm all for you.

Please don't define disabilities according to your definitions - I know, it's easier for you if "we" can be easily categorized. But we can't be. So here's a trick - don't bring advocacy group speakers, and please, don't bring speakers from parent advocacy groups - nothing says "dependence" more clearly than "call mom," and please ! please! avoid the folks from your campus disability services office - their job will be to tell you the "happy stories." Instead, ask students, whatever students are willing to get up and describe their lives in your school. You'll get contradictory pictures, certainly, but you won't get nonsense.

Please don't say "mild disabilities" or "severe disabilities" - that is not yours to say. Is a complete inability to read better or worse than an inability to walk? And who does the ranking? If anything like this is in your vocabulary, I suggest you get it out, right now.

My thoughts? I like stories. I like stories which describe the struggles without pretending that everyone with a disability is always a nice guy. I like stories because stories pull you in, let you see the world through the characters eyes, in ways parlor games never will.

Stories can be presented as "One Book, One Community" kinds of things, or in Book Groups, or Movie Nights - whatever - as long as there isn't any pretense that there's a single "correct" answer. The characters in Borderliners, Rory O'Shea, Curious Incident, even Drool Room might elicit sympathy, but maybe they ought to elicit frustration as well. The ways that they struggle with the world are not solved by everyone deciding to "be nice."

Here are some (including my own shameless self-promotion)...

(Please do, add your recommendations in the comments)

You can also collect so much on line - yes, videos from Teachers TV, yes blogs, and blogs, and blogs, and blogs. (random picks, go find your own). But look for voices (again), not advocates. Advocates have something to sell you, voices have something to tell you.

Of course if you really want to celebrate - celebrate by demanding universal design - from doorways to rest rooms - from housing to seating - from every computer to every office - from locker rooms to that counter at the coffee shop, from every syllabus to every exam. If you want to think about how to use the social media we know to take the action we need, you might start with Ewan McIntosh's blog post today.

Because, when it comes down to it, awareness is nice - but not having to be constantly, consciously aware, that would be progress. Real progress.

- Ira Socol

01 December 2008


When is a car assistive technology?

Well, first, when you need to get someplace that you can't walk to. I live 90 miles from my campus. There is no mass transit, nothing like mass transit. No planes or trains. I can't reasonably walk. Google Maps says it would take "1 day and 3 hours" by foot. So the car becomes an "assistive technology" if you like that term. Or a "tool," if you prefer Universal Design and Toolbelt Theory.

But what if your car was a multi-function tool? If it allowed you to do many things at once? What if it actually became a more universally designed environment than your, say, classroom?

I recently wrote this paragraph as part of a paper: "I drive 90 miles (145 km) from my home to the campus. The “radio” in my car links to my phone. It also accepts a flash drive. I can talk on my phone without touching it. I can send text messages and emails by speaking them. I can listen to my text messages. If I say, “USB,” the “radio” will begin playing books or academic papers that I have downloaded at home, converted to mp3 sound files through free web sites, and slid onto the flash drive, or it may begin to play audiobooks read by wonderful narrators which I have downloaded from LibriVox. And while I am not fully fluent in the abbreviated spellings of text messaging, my car’s radio seems to know it all."

This was near the end of a very long 12,000+ word paper regarding misconceptions of socio-cultural theory and literacy.

I was discussing the shift in the form and fixedness of our texts. But I was also discussing Sync, a system which comes on Ford vehicles these days. Sync may be the best single new Microsoft application since Word was introduced
. It represents not just vast improvements in driving safety (hands on the wheel, eyes on the road), but a sense of the future of media flexing to your needs at each moment.

For those of you who follow my Toolbelt Theory, you know that I believe - absolutely - that no one medium, no one technology, no one method, strategy, or assistive technology, will get you through life. Text-challenged or not, we all might choose different ways to access messages and emails and books depending on whether we are (a) in our office, (b) walking down the street, (c) sitting in a classroom, (d) flying across the Atlantic, (e) lying in bed, or (f) driving down the road. Likewise we will access music differently, video differently, perhaps a dictionary differently. You'll also likely use your phone differently. These are the "environment" issues in the TEST (Task, Environment, Skills, Tools) arrangement of Joy Zabala's SETT protocol. And they matter. They matter a great deal.

Sync understands this. It is a system crafted to the needs of its unique environment, and yet it still flexes according to the users skills and tool knowledge. It can adapt to any bluetooth phone. You can use various combinations of voice, buttons on the steering wheel, or buttons on the radio itself (perhaps with the assistance of the passenger riding shotgun). It is not "single voice" dependent - accepting voices as they come. It allows you to use the media player of your choice, or just a flash drive - it is not "format dependent" like an iPod or most AT hardware.

Is it perfect? Of course not. They really, really need to get the "read text message" system working with every phone on every network - especially Blackberrys (this, unfortunately, seems way too typical of Microsoft). They have one of the most confusing, ridiculous websites I've ever seen. But, this is a software based system, and updates have come and will come, so the features and functions will only improve.

Is this a reason to run out and buy a new car? No, of course not. But it is a reason to look at one car choice over another. Ford and Microsoft have assembled communications technology in a way which can really help people function - all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. It is a model for the future, and a lesson in media flexibility.

- Ira Socol

Sync is a very low cost option on all US and Canadian Ford models. I wouldn't buy the GPS option, you can get voice enabled GPS much cheaper than Ford offers it. The basic Sync is all you need.